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Deuteronomy: Chapter 17

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1You must not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has a defect, anything seriously wrong; for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.

2If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3by going to serve other gods and worshiping them—whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden— 4and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 6On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. 7The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

8If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of blood‐shed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another—any such matters of dispute in your towns—then you shall immediately go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose, 9where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case. 10Carry out exactly the decision that they announce to you from the place that the LORD will choose, diligently observing everything they instruct you. 11You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the LORD your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.

14When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” 15you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. 16Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

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Commentary spanning earlier chapters

16.18–17.13 : The organization of justice.

16.18–20 :

Deuteronomy here establishes a professionalized local judiciary.

18 :

Towns (lit. “gates”), the local sphere ( 12.15,17,21; 16.5 ), as distinguished from the central sanctuary; also the traditional place where the village elders dispensed justice (Job 29.7; Ruth 4.1,11; Lam 5.14 ). By leaving the elders unmentioned, Deuteronomy contracts or eliminates their authority, though they are mentioned elsewhere in older sections of Deuteronomy (e.g., 19.12; 21.2; 22.15 ).

19 :

You must not distort justice, an admonition, quoting Ex 23.6a (where the same verb is translated “pervert”). For a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, the older law in Ex 23.8 , whose reference to “those with sight” (NRSV's “officials” is not correct) is revised in light of Deuteronomy's stress upon wisdom (see notes on 1.13; 34.9 ).

16.21–17.1 : Prohibitions against Canaanite cultic objects

( 7.5; 12.3; Ex 34.13 ).

16.21 :

Sacred pole, see 7.5n.

22 :

Stone pillar, see 7.5n.

17.1 :

See 15.21 , here broadened into a general law of sacrifice.

17.2–7 : Local justice.

This law overlaps with 13.6–11 , but is placed here because it deals with the procedures and jurisdiction of the local courts. The law grants the local courts maximum autonomy (see 16.8 ), provided that a trial is conducted according to rational standards that assure empirical proof.

2 :

A man or woman, the law views the woman as a legally responsible individual. The viewpoint in marriage and family law differs, however (see 22.13–29 ).

3 :

Contravening the Decalogue ( 5.8–9 ).

6 :

Two or three witnesses, the condition for establishing proof. The prohibition against execution on the basis of testimony by one witness is also found at 19.15–16; Num 35.30 .

17.8–13 : Justice at the central sanctuary.

In the pre‐Deuteronomic period, legal cases in which there was an absence of physical evidence or of witnesses were remanded to the local sanctuary, where the parties to the dispute would swear a judicial oath at the altar ( 19.17; Ex 22.7–11; 1 Kings 8.31–32; note also Ex 21.6 ). These two laws ( 17.2–7,8–13 ) thus fill the judicial void created by Deuteronomy's prohibition of the local sanctuaries (ch 12 ). Now, any case that requires recourse to the altar is remanded to the central sanctuary; all other cases, even capital ones, may be tried locally (vv. 2–7 ).

8 :

These cases must be referred to the central sanctuary because, in the absence of witnesses or evidence, local officials cannot make a ruling. Between one kind of bloodshed and another, the legal distinction between murder and manslaughter (Ex 21.12–14; Num 35.16–23 ). In each pair, the distinction is between premeditated or unintentional offenses.

9 :

The tribunal at the sanctuary includes both priestly and lay members. The account of Jehoshaphat's setting up tribunals throughout Judah composed of lay and clerical judges reflects this law (2 Chr 19.5–11 ).

17.14–20 : The law of the king.

Deuteronomy greatly restricts royal authority. Generally Near Eastern monarchs promulgated law; here the monarch is subject to the law and required to read the Torah daily (v. 19 ). Deuteronomy even denies the king his typical judicial role as court of last appeal (cf. Ps 72.1–4; 2 Sam 12.1–14; 14.1–24; 1 Kings 3.16–28 ). This law far more emphasizes what the king cannot do than what he may do.

14 :

Like all the nations, see 1 Sam 8.10–18 .

16–18 :

The offenses parallel warnings against royal autocracy outlined at the very founding of the monarchy (1 Sam 8.10–18 ). They likely presuppose Solomon's trade in horses (1 Kings 10.26–29 ) and his multiple foreign wives (1 Kings 11.1–8 ). The Deuteronomistic Historian believed those marriages led to idolatry (1 Kings 11.9–13 ). A copy of this law, the Septuagint reads “this repetition of the law” (Gk “to deuteronomion touto”), the source of the book's name. Like later traditional views, it sees Deuteronomy as a reprise (of Ex, Lev, Num), ignoring the extent to which it revises and challenges earlier law.

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